Daily Classic: 25 Years Ago, Mother (aka EarthBound Zero) Skewered JRPGs, and America

While lacking the polish of its sequel EarthBound, Nintendo's first true RPG still marched to its own beat.

Retrospective by Jeremy Parish, .

You have to admit, Japanese gamers took to role-playing games with surprising fervor. The Black Onyx opened the door to the genre in 1984, and within five years the format had grown so pervasive and standardized that it had already begun to inspire parodies.

Admittedly, Nintendo's Mother isn't exactly a parody in the sense you might expect. It doesn't lean on broad jokes or feature characters mugging for the camera. It lacks the mean-spirited bite of South Park or the apathetic use of pop-culture references in place of actual jokes common to television shows like Family Guy. It takes a more subtle, even gentle, approach, standing somewhere between satire and pastiche.

Specifically, Mother sets its sights on the Dragon Quest series, which (despite not having yet made its way overseas by summer 1989) had exploded into a juggernaut in Japan since its debut three years prior. Dragon Quest III, which launched about a year and a half before Mother, had become a newsworthy phenomenon, inspiring long lines of fans eager to be the first to play this hotly anticipated sequel... many of whom were kids who skipped school and ended up being arrested for truancy. While role-playing games of all varieties — from dungeon-crawler to roguelike — found a welcoming audience in Japan, only Dragon Quest could rack up first-day sales exceeding a million.

Basically, like Dragon Quest, but weirder. [Source]

A great many Japanese RPGs used Dragon Quest as a template, borrowing a similar graphical style, a similar first-person combat view, even lifting the interface display windows directly from Enix's hit series. In this respect, Mother simply looked like yet another Dragon Quest knockoff.

Where the game differed from the rest was in its setting and story. Unlike every other Roto-come-lately to clog up the late '80s Famicom release lists, Mother scrupulously avoided the hoary clichés of fantasy or science fiction that dominated the rest of the genre. Instead, it presented its tale framed in the context of the modern world. In that sense, Mother wasn't wholly unique; Atlus and Namco had published Digital Devil Saga; Megami Tensei nearly two years prior.

But Mother and MegaTen couldn't have been more dissimilar in their approach to the modern day. MegaTen transpired in Tokyo and quickly shifted to a sort of horror-tinged demon world inhabited by fantastic creatures culled from the religions and myths of the world, and it deftly blended science fiction and fantasy. Mother, on the other hand, sent players into a thinly veiled rendition of America — the USA as seen through the eyes of a Japanese author, all iconic images and skewed clichés — and while eventually the plot did culminate with a decidedly sci-fi scenario, it never lost its grounding in that slightly offbeat version of modern America.

No, really, it's a LOT like Dragon Quest.

It probably helped that Mother unfolds from the perspective of a young boy (roughly 10 years old) rather than the high school students who take the lead in Megami Tensei games. There's a sense of wonder and magical realism that makes sense in the context of childhood imagination; Mother forever leaves players wondering what's presented literally and what's simply an invention of its young protagonist Ninten. While other RPGs cast players as a hero like in Dragon Quest, Mother at times feels more like you're taking the role a child pretending to be a hero like in Dragon Quest, a conceit adopted more literally in recent years by the likes of Costume Quest and South Park: The Stick of Truth.

By and large, the unique nature of Mother can be chalked up to the creative vision of the driving personality behind its design and story, writer Shigesato Itoi. A prolific and multi-faceted author, Itoi's closest analog in the U.S. would probably be Garrison Keillor — both share a similar warmth, and the likewise share a common appreciation for childhood experiences and nostalgia matched to the ability to good-naturedly skewer such things with the wisdom and cynicism of adulthood.

Mother came about through Itoi's initiative, and he provided the full text of the game — not only the critical quest dialogue, but the musings and remarks of non-player characters as well. This fact alone helped elevate the game above its peers; rather than being written by game designers, Mother was written by a writer.

Author, columnist, Iron Chef judge, fishing fanatic... Mother scribe Shigesato Itoi is a true RPG renaissance man. [Source]

As a writer, Itoi specializes in saying a great deal in very little space. He's worked for years as a commercial copywriter, and he produced daily "micro blogs" long before Twitter existed. This talent for crafting economical, multi-layered copy made a perfect match for an 8-bit RPG, where storage space came at a premium and every byte of text had to count. Conversations in Mother spanned the gamut from surreal to humorous to wistful, a far cry from the perfunctory, functional text common to other console RPGs. Mother's NPCs would contemplate the profound and the trivial alike rather than simply ruminate on matters relevant to the plot or the quest at hand.

The real-world grounding of the game found form in Mother's mechanics as much as in its conversations. Ninten and his friends wielded weapons like baseball bats and toy guns rather than legendary swords and assault rifles. Players could travel by train instead of simply moving from town to town on foot, and you were as likely to see a dungeon take the form of an abandoned warehouse or laboratory as a cavern.

At heart, sure, Mother still worked like your typical Dragon Quest variant. Random combat encounters would transfer players from overhead exploration sequences to first-person combat driven by menus. Hitting bad guys with baseball bats functionally worked the same as slashing with Excalibur in some other RPG, and magic spells still played a critical role in battle, even if the story tried to pass them off as psychic powers.

What might have been, eh? [Source]

And in truth, Mother was a fairly uneven example of the console RPG format. The game suffered from a number of rough edges; the party's offensive and defensive stats didn't scale consistently with the threats they encountered, causing the difficulty level to rise and fall wildly from area to area. Most of the mechanical refinements that people love about the sequel, EarthBound, don't appear here. Rolling HP counters, non-random enemy encounters — those are features from EarthBound, not Mother.

In one of the great cases of "the ones that got away," Mother was originally slated to be localized for the U.S. under the title "Earth Bound," but those plans fell through and the name was reassigned six years later to the U.S. release of Mother 2. A complete localized version was unearthed years later and made its way onto the Internet under the name "EarthBound Zero," but in a way its failure to make its way to the U.S. has only helped to prop up its sequel's legacy as a unique and special creation. While Mother featured writing every bit as sharp as EarthBound's, the game mechanics wouldn't catch up with the narrative until the 16-bit era.

Even so, the mere fact that Dragon Quest inspired such enthusiasm as to warrant a game that deliberately skewed its foundations — headed up by a well-known writer, no less — speaks volumes of how quickly Japan cottoned to the genre. And in that satirical adventure, we see just how idiomatic that country's rendition of the concept became almost from the very beginning. Mother may have belonged to the same genre as Curse of the Azure Bonds, but as an expression of the RPG concept it couldn't have been more different.

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Comments 11

  • Avatar for Macuelos #1 Macuelos 4 years ago
    Just a few weeks ago I played and finished MOTHER for the first time, and the first thing that hit me was the way it was similar to Dragon Warrior (Quest). Friends who played the game told me I might as well skip it, as Earthbound is apparently its superior in every possible way. But that's just not how I roll.

    The low amount of text boxes and the similarly low amount of possible text per box means that it has to convey its story in just a few words, something I could never do. The manner in which MOTHER succeeds at doing this is something I greatly admire in the game. As opposed to Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, where the text drives you over the edge and makes you hit your head against a number of walls.

    Something else I really like about MOTHER is its music. When I say its music, though, I mean the official releases that say they contain the music from the game. I have to admit I don't really the music in the game, but I really like Pollyana (I Believe In You) by Catherine Warwick, who does not at all sound like she was 14 at the time of recording. The other tracks are really great, too. Seems like they're arranged versions of the in-game music, considering the music for Magicant sounds a lot better than the actual music in the game.

    But yea, I have no regrets I did actually play this game, and didn't skip to Earthbound.
    ...Well, maybe there's a little regret in that final *boss* battle. That's like a Chrono Cross ending years before that game started Guide, Dang It-ing people to the golden ending. Or maybe I just missed something.
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  • Avatar for Macuelos #2 Macuelos 4 years ago
    Deleted August 2014 by Macuelos
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #3 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @Hoolo Aw, man, you just TVTropes'd.
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  • Avatar for jeffk #4 jeffk 4 years ago
    Not sure if you guys have seen this yet, but you might know that Itoi's company makes a day planner called the Hobonichi Techo. (I've been using the new English-language one all year and it's awesome.) For the 2015 version, he's actually doing a Mother 2 cover:

    (Sorry if this is spammy, but I figured it's of interest!)
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  • Avatar for PreposterousWhitey #5 PreposterousWhitey 4 years ago
    This game, not undeservedly, gets ignored a lot in favor of its more fully-realized sequels, but this writeup does a great job of explaining why the original entry is still worth discussing in the context of gaming history. I consider myself to be a fairly big fan of the Mother series, but can only claim to be personally interested in 2 and 3. Reading this, though, has given me a new perspective on the first entry and I feel a newfound respect for it forming in my heart. I probably won't ever actually PLAY it, but at least I can admire it more fully from a distance. Thanks, Jeremy.
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  • Avatar for Macuelos #6 Macuelos 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish Considering the amount of time I spent there, it was bound to happen sooner or later. It's a miracle I don't dream of them Tropes.
    That reminds me, I should read the page for MOTHER.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #7 SargeSmash 4 years ago
    Before writing anything about Mother / Earthbound Zero, I feel I must pay my condolences to the Déjà Vu cart I butchered to make my own copy of the game. Well, I'd feel bad if I didn't have like three more copies, but still!

    Mother is definitely one of those games that is a love-or-hate affair. Despite the humor, it's not quite as funny as Earthbound, and it's definitely plagued by some of the problems with earlier Dragon Quest games. Still, if I'm not mistaken, this was Nintendo's first attempt at a "pure" RPG, and it's a darn fine effort judged in that context.

    I still remember all the hubbub about the prototype cartridge years ago. Definitely one of the cooler things about the emulation and preservation community, and I'm thankful that we got a chance to experience this gem in English, in the form that Nintendo intended before the project was shelved to prioritize the SNES.
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  • Avatar for Exhuminator #8 Exhuminator 4 years ago
    "rather than being written by game designers, Mother was written by a writer"
    This is the most important aspect of the entire Mother series. If the video game industry needs anything to evolve, it's more professional writing by actual authors.
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  • Avatar for TotalHenshin #9 TotalHenshin 4 years ago
    Very good write-up Jeremy.

    I, too, would like to tip my hat to the wonderful music in the game. I didn't have the same problems everyone else had, as I played with the easy patch, and so the game never became a slog and was wholly enjoyable to me the whole way through.
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  • Avatar for WorstClassic #10 WorstClassic 4 years ago
    Is a "Fanboy" reaction a proud, personal declaration that I am a fanboy?
    Or is meant to be some dismissive accusation against the writer?
    I totally meant the former. I am totally a fanboy for this one.
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